A jet clears the Yucatan peninsula and approaches the cord of land strung from North to South America. The wings descend over the lava and lakes of Nicaragua toward the hot Managua tarmac and the promise that the end of a seventeen-hour travel day is near.
In anticipation of this moment I’ve been studying with Rosetta Stone for two and a half months. And while the usual chore of clearing the cobwebs from my Spanish vocabulary won’t be necessary on this trip, I’m not exactly excited to strike out into a city that guidebooks peg as “difficult” and “nondescript”. As I walk through the terminal with a sigh, bound for the sprawl of Managua, I decide in favor of a last-minute change of plans.
Donning my best Spanish accent I approach a horde of taxi drivers and ask the price to Granada, the former capital an hour south. I don’t know what the fare should be, but I do know that the initial quote always includes a clueless foreigner tax. Feigning astonishment, I inform the drivers with a smile that I’d better start walking. One driver decides to waive the tax for me and we’re soon on our way.
I should feel guilty—long distance cabbing like this is a cardinal sin for backpackers like myself. Even after negotiating a reasonable price, I’m spending nearly a day’s budget by true shoestring standards, but I rationalize: the same wad of cash placed in the palm of a Manhattan cabby would scarcely earn me directions to the nearest bus stop.
An hour later the taxi drops me on a cobblestone street between the stucco walls of Spanish architecture painted in muted shell tones of yellow, pink and blue. Tables line the sidewalks of the street leading from the main cathedral and central park down the hill toward the dark, windswept lake in the distance.
A modest crowd of travelers, Nicaraguan and foreign alike, adorn the sidewalk cafes where they are served liters of beer wrapped in paper napkins under dull yellow street lamps. If not for the coral palette, I might be looking at the weathered facades of a European city.
Wandering away from the higher-priced hotels of the city center, I find a lodge a couple blocks from the central park. I’m greeted by the owner, Gustavo, and we chat as he shows me through an open courtyard adorned with plants and rocking chairs to a simple room with a bed and fan. Gustavo is an extroverted Costa Rican with a pencil-thin mustache and crystal clear Spanish, prone to loud and contagious bouts of laughter. With a good feeling about my host, I adopt the room as a home base for exploring Granada.
As I settle in and crack open my first bottle of Nicaraguan lager, I recall the start of my first Central American adventure, standing verbally paralyzed and helpless outside the airport in Guatemala City. Since then, arriving unannounced in foreign cities late at night, equipped with only my backpack and a smile, has become a favorite pastime of mine.
I’ve since learned two important lessons that have allowed for my penchant for poor planning, last-minute decisions and the always-exciting results. First, pack what you think you need, then lose half. Second, start to learn the language before you get off the plane—you’ll never appreciate it more than your first couple hours in a foreign country. Light luggage and a handle on the language have given me endless freedom while traveling, even if sometimes it’s simply the freedom to change my own lousy plans at a moment’s notice.